Posted by: Vikram | August 22, 2008

Would you let your child become an Olympic athlete ?

Sounds like a ridiculous question right ? But to an urban middle-class family in India, it is an extremely difficult one. If I were a parent in India today and my child had such potential, I would still insist that he/she study hard. This is because in India, choosing the sports route can either bring unnecessary riches 😉 or utter anonymity 😦 . The state does not heavily support athletes (which it should not in a country where almost half the kids are malnourished) and there is virtually no safety net outside sports for athletes.

If you did some more research on Michael Phelps, the American swimmer who won many medals at the Olympics, you might find something startling. Between 2004 and 2008, Phelps attended the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, one of the finest universities in the world. He obtained a degree in sports marketing and management. If some tragedy were to befall his athletic career he would have no trouble finding a job in America. Similar things can be said about almost all American athletes, they are graduates of some big university like the University of California, Texas, Oregon etc etc, they have a job-worthy degree if things go wrong.

So what happens to a promising Indian swimmer at age 17. She faces the most gruelling, toughest year of her life, because at the end of it are 5 or 6 three hour exams that will probably decide whether she can continue further studies. If she does make it into a good university, she has to do a good field like Engineering/Medicine, sports management is probably not even offered. If she does an easier course, she might end up never getting a job. Its not that different for a he by the way.

Many news articles and blogs have blamed India’s lack of Olympic medals on social mobility, corruption and even culture !! I talked about these things myself, but realize that the issue in urban India is perhaps very different. India may do abysmally at the Olympics but it does reasonably well at the Asian Games and the Commonwealth games standing fifth and fourth (in total medals) respectively in competitions involving China, Korea, Japan, UK, Australia and Canada. Much better than Pakistan that has a similar culture and a 160 million people, and also the African countries who are renowned for their athletic prowess. Let me also point out that according to the World Bank, Russia is much more corrupt than India but it does brilliantly at the Olympics (Another corruption index gives Russia 2.3, India 3.5 and Australia 8.6 points).

Its time India’s media and middle classes stop blaming its culture and politicians for every humiliation and failure the country faces, sometimes the issue can just come down to a simple question in front of a parent.


  1. Enjoyed reading your post. Very mature approach.

    I had written on a more or less similar topic, with more emphasis on China’s efforts and approach. So I was just browsing for different view points on the subject.

    Let me get to the rest of your posts now 🙂

    Thanks. It would be nice if you could put the link to your blog in the URL box. This way I can take a look at your posts.

  2. Considering most of the country is agricultural I do not see this as a big problem. If you can not make it to a medal you can easily go back and farm. The need in India is to develop the talents in the villages for sport not in the cities. The Middle Class in India is not what will get you medals.

    Good point, but this post was specifically aimed at the situation in the middle class of India. Of course, as I had discussed in the earlier post ,situation for rural India is totally different. Your statement about going back and farming is valid, but you also have to consider that many families in rural India are those of landless peasants. I think the market and educational institutions can create a safety net for urban athletes, for rural athletes question is a little bit more complicated.

  3. […] colleges is college sports. The big public universities all have strong sports programs as I have mentioned earlier. The colleges offer scholarships to good athletes from high-schools and they often play for the […]

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